There's a team building a four-dimensional computer map of Edinburgh

Edinburgh, seen from Calton Hill. Image: Getty.

Its frantic approach made practitioners wince but, through Time Team, Channel 4 made archeology prime time entertainment for over two decades. That fact alone vividly illustrates a widely shared fascination amongst the public for peeling back the layers of the past and peering at the lives of those who came before us.

Now that Time Team is off our screens, cutaway junkies are having to look elsewhere for their fix. Fortunate, then, that the team at the University of Edinburgh working on the Mapping Edinburgh’s Social History (MESH) project are developing a way that anyone, anywhere, can construct a digital historical atlas.

Professor Richard Rodger the project’s lead researcher says that MESH’s founding “philosophy is to make the cartographic information easily available in digital form to the public… Allow historians access… produce maps of the city, mak[ing] Edinburgh’s history known [and] available to its communities”.

That all sounds very worthy – but it’s merely the start of MESH’s ambition.

How the distribution of butchers shops changed over 165 years. Image: MESH.

Since the project received a £633,000 grant from the Arts & Humanities Research Council, it’s mapped between 80 and 90 per cent of modern day Edinburgh has been mapped. This is important, because MESH’s approach blends the picture of contemporary Edinburgh provided by OpenStreetMap with historical geological and cartographic data.

This process makes it is possible to create accurate maps that trace Edinburgh’s development across time. Users can watch as the New Town takes shape, or use traditional historical sources like trade directories to plot the historical location of butchers shops or pharmacies.

Rodger says the maps have “show[n] [him] things [he] just wasn’t aware of”: for instance, he has recently been using them to explore the development of Edinburgh’s financial sector and the way that this influenced patterns of suburbanisation.

MESH is currently developing an array of tools that will allow school pupils “to inspect the city’s [development across time] and ask questions of it”. This is where the “social” aspect of the history that MESH is interested in shines through. By tracing the development of a wide range of activities, for instance “eating and drinking across time”, it is possible for the researchers to humanise the raw data and bring users closer to their forebears.

A sample of the team's research. Image: MESH.

Rodger is keen to point to the potential political implications of the work that he is doing. MESH’s work opens up new dimensions in investigating traditional social history concerns around the socioeconomic and spatial origins of inequality, whilst also pointing at new questions, especially ones about open access to data.

The latter issue is one that harks back to social history’s founding assumption that the decisions of those with power and wealth require scrutiny. In a decidedly Time Team turn of phrase Rodger describes MESH’s work as excavating the “historical data miden”. This doesn’t mean see the data as necessarily belonging to the past. Citing a report by the Danish government, which estimates that its decision in 2002 to make its address files open access, has boosted the economy by  €14m a year, he suggests that free access to contemporary and historical mapping data could offer a myriad of benefits to, for instance, those engaged with the planning and premises licensing processes.


For Rodger the humanities, through initiatives like MESH, can provide a firm foundation and historical underpinning to the development of smart cities. In doing so, the tools MESH are developing offer everyone, whether in an academic chair on an armchair, the chance to develop a historical cuttaway without risking the rain.

Want more of this stuff? Follow CityMetric on Twitter or Facebook.

 
 
 
 

Where did London’s parakeets come from?

Parakeets in the skies above Wormwood Scrubs, west London. Image: Getty.

Visitors to London’s many green spaces would have to be stubbornly looking at their feet to not see one of the UK’s most exotic birds.  Dubbed “posh pigeons” by unimaginative Londoners, these brilliant green parakeets stand out among the fauna of Northern Europe’s mostly grey cities.

‘Parakeets’ is actually an umbrella term referring to the multiple species, which can now be found in London, Amsterdam, Brussels, Paris and various German cities. By far the most common is the Indian ring-necked parakeet, easily recognisable by the stylish red ring around their neck, a matching red beak and, of course, the loud squawking.

In the last 50 years these migrants from South Asia have arrived and thrived, settling into their own ecological niche. In the UK, London is a particular stronghold, but although they may have originally settled in the leafy streets of Twickenham, the birds can now be found in cities as far north as Glasgow.

The story of how they ended up in London is a matter of some discussion and plenty of myth. One often reported theory is that the capitals’ current population are the descendants of birds that escaped from Shepperton Studios during filming of The African Queen, starring Humphrey Bogart and Katharine Hepburn. Others would tell you that they escaped from Syon Park in the early 1970s, when a piece of debris from a passing plane damaged the aviary and allowed them to escape. This chimes with their original concentration in South West London.
My favourite story by far is that they were released by Jimi Hendrix on Carnaby Street in the late 60s. Bored of London’s grey skyline, he set the little fellas free to liven up the place.

However they got here, from 1970 onwards their numbers boomed. In 1992, 700 birds were recorded in London Bird Report. By 1998, 2,845 were seen in the London Area, and by 2006 the ring-neck parakeet was 15th most sighted bird in London.


Darwin would be proud at how well they adapted to the new environment. Toughened up by the hard Himalayan climate, they handle the cold northern European winters better than most locals. Global warming is often brought up in discussions of the parakeets, but it is certainly only part of the story.
It helps, too, that the birds have a 35 year lifespan and few local predators, enabling them to breed freely.

As with any new species, the debate has raged about whether they are harmful to the ecosystem. Strangely reminiscent of the debate over human migrants, often the birds have often been accused of stealing the homes of the natives. The parakeets do nest in tree cavities also used by jackdaws, owls and woodpeckers – but there is little evidence that native species are being muscled out. 

The also provide a food source for Britain's embattled birds of prey. Owls and peregrine falcons have been know to eat them. Charlie and Tom, two city dwelling falcons monitored by Nathalie Mahieu, often bring back parakeets as food.
Of more concern is the new arrivals’ effect on plants and trees. By 2009 their numbers in the UK had grown so much that they were added to the “general licence” of species, which can be killed without individual permission if they are causing damage.

And Parrotnet, am EU funded research project studying the development of parakeet populations across Europe, has warned of the risk they pose to agriculture. In their native India, the parakeets are known to cause widespread damage to crops. As agriculture develops in the UK in line with warmer climates, crops such as maize, grapes and sunflower will become more popular. In India the birds have been documented as reducing maize crops by 81 per cent.

So the parakeets remain divisive. Environmentalist Tony Juniper has disparagingly described them as “the grey squirrel of the skies”. By contrast, the University of York biologist Chris D. Thomas has argued that the parakeets should be left free to move and breed. He sees those wary of the parakeet boom of “irrational persecution” of the bird.

For good or ill the parakeets are here to stay. As so often with migrants of all kinds, there has been some unease about the impact they have had – but the birds, popular amongst Londoners, certainly add colour to the city. Thriving in the urban environment thousands of miles from their natural habitat, they are a metropolitan bird for Europe’s metropolitan cities. 

Want more of this stuff? Follow CityMetric on Twitter or Facebook